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What Sen. Feinstein Losing Support Of California Democrats Says About The Party


Senator Dianne Feinstein is running her final campaign. She is an institution who has represented California in the Senate for 25 years. Over the weekend, delegates at the California Democratic Party convention gave her 37 percent of the vote. She needed 60 percent to get the party's endorsement. Her top rival got 54 percent of the delegates' votes. Seema Mehta, of the LA Times, was in San Diego covering the convention and joins us now. Hi, there.

SEEMA MEHTA: Hi, how are you?

SHAPIRO: Good. How surprising was this outcome?

MEHTA: We were - this was exactly what we were looking for at this convention because we knew that she's always had a sort of uneasy relationship with, you know, the most liberal parts of the party - the party base. And she has, like, sort of really not been a part of party functions. You know, she's in D.C. doing her job. And the last time I saw her at one of these events was like 2014. This was a constant refrain during this convention - that people felt like she just hasn't been around, that she has not, you know spent time - that she's sort of lost touch with her California roots.

And that's something that I think Kevin de Leon and his supporters certainly tried to seize upon as they tried to get support for him. You know, he's really been reaching out to these people for years. You know, he's a mainstay at these party events, party conventions. You know, he throws receptions for these people. He was handing out tacos this weekend. So we knew that he had a strong base of support among this more liberal wing that we've seen emerge - like this sort of Bernie Sanders type wing that's become increasingly powerful in the California Democratic Party.

SHAPIRO: Well, I was going to ask how much of a parallel there is between this Kevin de Leon versus Senator Dianne Feinstein rivalry and the 2016 Bernie Sanders versus Hillary Clinton rivalry.

MEHTA: I think there are a lot of similarities there and because - this was a divide obviously we saw nationwide in the 2016 election - but in the California Democratic Party, once 2016 was over, a lot of these Bernie Sanders supporters, they became elected members of the state party. I mean, they're trying to really push the party to the left. So they have an increasingly powerful voice in the party.

SHAPIRO: Is this going to have any actual impact on the ballot in California for the 2018 Senate race?

MEHTA: After 2016, I'm not making any predictions ever again.


MEHTA: But it's difficult because Dianne Feinstein has such overwhelming advantages. She has $10 million in the bank. She's wealthy. She can add to that if she needs to. Kevin de Leon has less than half a million. Dianne Feinstein is a household name in California. As you said, she's represented the state in the Senate for a quarter century. Kevin De Leon, while he is the state Senate leader, and he's powerful in Sacramento, most people have no idea who the heck he is. And he needs money to really increase his profile, but he's really struggling to raise money. And if you look at the polling - the most recent poll, she leads him by 29 points.

SHAPIRO: Is the objection to her over politics? Or is some of it that she's already the eldest sitting senator at age 84, and there may be desire for a new generation of leadership in the Democratic Party?

MEHTA: There's a combination of things going on. If you look at the highest-ranking Democrats - Governor Jerry Brown, Senator Feinstein, former Senator Barbara Boxer, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi - these are people who have been on the political scene for a long, long time. And there's a feeling, especially in Southern California and among Latino voters, that it's their turn now - that the state has been ruled for too long by basically white Democrats from Northern California. In addition to that, Senator Feinstein's policies - she's always been perhaps viewed as more moderate and pragmatic. And on policy issues, I mean, she is a bit of a hawk. You know, she voted for the Iraq war. She is OK with, you know, warrantless spying on American citizens by the federal government. These are issues that California Democrats have a problem with.

SHAPIRO: As we've said Senator Feinstein has been a public figure for a long time - Kevin de Leon, less of a household name. Tell us a little bit about him.

MEHTA: So he's a state Senate leader. He actually grew up in San Diego. He was raised by a single mother. He has like a very interesting, you know, sort of personal story that he, you know, tries to use to connect with people. He's been pushing for some of the more progressive policies - the $15-per-hour minimum wage, which he was successful on. He's very active on climate change. He's very active on immigration policies that are sort of aimed at thwarting the Trump administration.

SHAPIRO: Seema Mehta covers politics for the LA Times. Thanks for joining us.

MEHTA: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MR. MELLY SONG "PUT YOU ON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.